|Celtic Paul Pierce is hoping to balance his increased star power with a big team goal, defending a title, this season. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)|
WALTHAM - The NBA Finals Most Valuable Player held a white sign in front of him yesterday that read: "Pierce, Paul 34." It was supposed to be a film session only for NBA Entertainment, but soon after several eager cameramen sneaked in to get shots of the hot Celtics star, who needs no introduction now.
"I am Paul Pierce," Pierce jokingly said.
After his unstoppable playoff performance gave the Celtics their first NBA title in 22 years, Pierce is now in the company of the league's marquee players, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, and Pierce's Boston teammate, Kevin Garnett. But the big question is whether Pierce can get an elite NBA club membership for more than a year.
"The Finals was the stage in which more people got a chance to see how extraordinary a player Paul Pierce is," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "Sometimes when teams don't win, people don't get a full appreciation. Players that do it day in and day out are not the rookies or the youngsters, but are in the prime of their basketball careers and are able to do it. Paul is one of those."
After years of Celtics struggle, Pierce asked for help and got it in Garnett and Ray Allen, and he yearned to prove himself on a grand NBA stage. The six-time All-Star couldn't steal the spotlight as a non-starter in the midseason classic. So he made the best of his time when the stakes were highest, during the playoffs, coming up big time after time when most needed.
He scored a game-high 22 points to lead the Celtics past Atlanta in a blowout Game 7 victory in the first round. The 6-foot-7-inch, 235-pounder outdueled James by scoring 41 points in a Game 7 victory over Cleveland in the second round. The Los Angeles native scored 27 points to lift Boston to a gritty, series-clinching victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Detroit. And while the Celtics whipped the Lakers in the Finals in six games, Pierce was the scoring star who screamed in satisfaction with the MVP trophy in his hands.
Immediately his already high-profile life went to a level reserved for only a select few.
"You couldn't go nowhere without people noticing you or all in your business and stuff like that," Pierce said at the team's Media Day. "You just have to know that it comes with the territory. You have to be a little more careful about what you do around people, probably a little more cautious than you were before."
Pierce definitely doesn't lack in confidence. But don't confident people rule the world? And while visiting Spain, he raised eyebrows back home by telling reporters about Bryant, "I don't think Kobe is the best player. I'm the best player." Considering what Pierce did in the Finals, he had every right to proclaim himself as the world's best player. Even so, many NBA followers viewed him as arrogant.
"They took it the wrong way," Pierce said. "It was a situation where I was in Spain at that time. Every other question was about whether Kobe was the best player. I just felt like I just won the championship. It wasn't a knock against him, but I think I am [the best].
"I guess people took it the wrong way and it kind of made it seem like, 'You're arrogant,' and all this. I'm just a confident player."
There were parties thrown in Pierce's honor in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Boston. He sat down with late-night TV hosts Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. "P-Squared" was finally a star outside Boston, and he's "working on a couple things" endorsement-wise that could come to light by the time the season starts. Oh yeah, keep an eye out for his
However when the Olympics came, the bright spotlight left Pierce and went overseas to Beijing.
It was there that Bryant, Wade, and James were the stars, leading the Americans to their first gold medal in eight years and they took all the headlines during the offseason. While Pierce had an opportunity to join the team three years ago, injuries and personal reasons caused him to pass. Pierce's decision seems like a mistake now, since the Larry O'Brien Trophy doesn't shine worldwide as brightly as a gold medal. But a right knee injury and fatigue from a long season probably would have sidelined him, anyway.
"I wasn't too thirsty [to play]," said Pierce, 30, whose right knee is fine now. "I wasn't even really wanting to participate. It's not that I don't want to represent my country. But at my age, after a long season, I thought it was good for me to rest."
The good news for Pierce is that he'll regain the spotlight opening night when the Celtics get their championship rings. And with Pierce now in the prime of his career, in good health, his confidence higher than ever, and with Garnett and Allen by his side, he seems focused on keeping his elite NBA membership intact.
"People have their own list and I don't think he was on that list [before]," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You never heard Paul. You heard Kobe. You heard LeBron James. You heard Wade. You didn't hear Paul Pierce.
"Now, [Pierce] has to be part of that discussion. But he has to do it again, again, and again. Of all the changes of any single person during the summer, his thirst for winning has grown and that's good to see. He wants to win again and he's made that clear to everybody in our [organization] and he's driven toward it."